When you’re running a temperature, blotting your sniffles, or dealing with any host of physical ailments, the decision to take a day off is pretty black and white. For most people, however, taking a day off is a harder sell when what ails you isn’t easily quantifiable — like stress or burnout. In those cases, the decision to take a mental health day becomes exponentially more difficult — suddenly, everything becomes a little less black and white and a lot more gray.
And if you think you’re in the minority by forgoing a mental health day or two, you’re not. According to one survey by Glassdoor, the average U.S. worker said they had only taken about half of their available paid time off in the previous 12 months. And in 2018, another report showed that American workers left 768 million days of paid time off on the table — a 9% increase over 2017.
Benefits of a mental health day
While workers are foregoing time off to chase the next promotion or finally get to the coveted inbox zero, the fact is an “always on” ethos regarding your work and career can have a profound effect on your mental and physical health.
One recent study found that working long hours was associated with stress, depression, and suicidal ideation among young employees spanning the ages of 20 to 35. But don’t misinterpret “long hours” as overly excessive. The study was conducted among a group of young adult employees, with 60% working between 40 and 50 hours per week and 17% working more than 50 hours per week. For most of us, those schedules are typical.
And there’s no shortage of research to support taking time off. An older study showed that even a relatively short vacation (four to five days) had a positive effect on the overall health and wellness of participants. In case you were wondering, working during the vacation had an adverse effect on the health and wellness of the study’s participants upon their return home.
When should you take a mental health day?
As we noted before, it can be difficult to determine when you should forge ahead and power through or when you should really stop to take a mental health day to take care of you — and only you. If you find that you’re dealing with any of the following more often than you’d like — it could be time:
- You’ve lost your ability to focus at work.
- Your motivation waxes and wanes.
- You’re less productive.
- You’re irritable, angry, or sad.
- You feel anxious or depressed.
- You’re tired.
- You’re having trouble sleeping.
- You’re experiencing chronic headaches, body aches, and pains.
- You have a hard time leaving work at work.
- You’ve withdrawn from your loved ones due to stress or anxiety.
- You don’t care about the quality of your work.
How to take a mental health day
Beyond the decision to take a mental health day, you may also be concerned about the logistics, shall we say? Ahead, we’ve put together some guidelines for self-care when you finally take that much-needed mental health day.
Communicate with your boss
While the stigma surrounding mental health is gradually falling away, you aren’t obligated to tell your employer that you’re taking a mental health day per se. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing that information — don’t. Instead, you can give the same reason you normally use when taking a sick day — you’re not feeling well. And to be clear, that’s not lying or even stretching the truth. If you’re not emotionally well, then you’re not wholly well.
Alternatively, you can simply tell your boss that you need the day to manage a personal health problem, and it’s true — mental health is a crucial part of your overall health.
Be deliberate and mindful about how you spend your time off
Self-care means different things to different people. For some, self-care looks like retail therapy; for others, it may be spending some time communing with nature in the great outdoors. If your mental health day means you’re doing something from sunup to sundown, that’s fine; if it means that you’re spending an entire day on the couch with your remote in hand and a pizza on order, that’s fine too. The point is when you finally take a day off, it’s important to do whatever feeds your soul.
Don’t overthink it
One of the most important things to keep in mind in terms of mental health days is that you can’t overthink it. Taking a mental health day and worrying about what your boss is doing, looking for, or thinking is maddening at best. If you even spare a passing thought to what’s going on at work, you’re ultimately defeating the purpose of the day. Similarly, you might want to rethink your plans to cross off all the items on your to-do list — unless you think checking those boxes is your own path to healing, that is.
Don’t do anything that will compound the issue
One of the most important things to remember when you take a mental health day is that you should try to steer clear of anything that will make matters worse. Drinking or substance abuse are typically very short-term answers that can worsen or compound feelings of anxiety and depression. More often than not, these behaviors are counterproductive to a day that is supposed to clear the decks for you to rest and recharge.
Be realistic about how much time you need
While your time off may be called a “mental health day,” that doesn’t mean it must be limited to one 24-hour period. Ultimately, you need to be realistic about what you need and how much time you need to accomplish it. If a day will do it for you, great. But, if you need a week to get things sorted, don’t be afraid to do what you need to do — your mental health (and overall health) depends on it.